The documentary Walk With Us clocks in at a little over fifty minutes. It is about Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.
I’m not sure what even to call their art. I see it referred to as “visual art” in some of the descriptions of this documentary, but that’s both too broad and too narrow. Too broad because “visual art” sounds like it would include painting and sculpture and all kinds of things other than what they’re doing, and too narrow because their stuff is at least as aural as visual.
It’s sort of “performance art,” “temporary art,” “public art.” But as I got more of a feel for it, I came to see it as a kind of “participatory art.”
And I think that aspect is what ended up appealing to me a fair amount.
For much of the film I had only a vague idea of what they were doing, and while I acknowledged it as interestingly different, I wasn’t really drawn in by it.
I think this documentary is shot more for people who either already know about this kind of art, or who like the mystery of trying to figure it out as they go along.
A lot of their art has to do with blurring the line between reality and a performance or creation or representation or something artificial like that, and the film itself maybe strays into a style vaguely like that. It’s not totally perplexing and avant garde, but it does not explain what’s going on in a straightforward way as someone like me might prefer.
For instance one thread running throughout the film—a series of clips interspersed with the interviews and other material—is of one of their works, but to the extent that I “got” it at all, it wasn’t until near the end. You see a woman with a video camera walking through an old theater. She’s partly watching where she’s going and partly watching the video camera viewer, which is flipped open. A woman’s voice is giving instructions where to go, as well as some kind of monologue or commentary.
Well, partly through things said in the interviews and other material, here’s what I eventually pieced together about this:
The woman with the camera is a member of the “audience” for this kind of art, a member of the public being taken on a kind of journey that constitutes this art piece. (Or, more likely, she’s an actress recreating a member of the public doing so—her facial expressions and body language and such are much too stylized and not the natural or self-conscious behavior one would expect from a real person.)
So they give each person in turn the video camera and then the person walks through the theater. They are not filming apparently, but are instead watching in the viewer what was pre-recorded by the artists. So really it’s like they’re carrying around a portable monitor, not a camera.
The pre-recorded material gives them instructions of where to go and what to do (i.e., the woman’s voice I mentioned is not a voiceover for this documentary, but is what the person carrying the camera would have been listening to). The pre-recorded visuals are mostly identical to what would be in the viewer if one were now filming (assuming the instructions are being carried out). So it’s like you’re reliving the walk the artists made when they journeyed through this theater filming and recording this narration.
There are exceptions though. For instance, you might be walking down a hallway, and if you look in front of you it’s empty, but in the viewer it’s the same shot exactly except someone is walking toward you delivering some kind of monologue. And it’s disconcerting, because you’re so used to what you’re seeing live and what you’re seeing in the viewer being the same (again, like if you were now filming). Or you walk into a room and find yourself facing a mirror, seeing in the mirror, of course, yourself holding the camera, but in the mirror in the viewer it’s the artist whose voice has been giving you instructions holding the camera.
Once I figured that out (assuming that’s even accurate) I could see the appeal of that. I mean, some of the specifics are artsy fartsy things that don’t necessarily speak to me—the monologues are mostly people speaking in riddles in portentous tones and such—but the concept itself is intriguing.
It’s interesting that I was thinking about this film on multiple levels the whole time I was watching it. One level was the mildly frustrating one of just trying to figure out what the art itself was, kind of wishing that the film would be a little less cute and just explain it. (Really how hard would it be to have a few seconds of someone saying, “In Berlin in such-and-such a year at the such-and-such theater, art goers were given a video camera playing a cassette and told to walk through the theater following the instructions on the cassette”?)
Another level was reflecting on this whole world of people who create and appreciate art, especially non-traditional art. Not so much pretentious rich people collecting famous paintings, and the money and politics of museums and galleries and all that. I don’t mean that art world, so much as sincere, oddball, mostly young people thinking outside the box and sharing things they create that are intended to be new and intellectually and emotionally challenging.
How much of what they’re doing has merit, and how much is “Emperor’s New Clothes” stuff where everyone sees and pretends to see what they think they’re supposed to? I suspect I’d appreciate it to some extent and be skeptical of it to some extent; how welcome would that attitude be in that world? Are they so used to dealing only with each other that it would be refreshing for someone like me to ask very literal “dumb” questions asking for plain English explanations of certain things and such, or would it be threatening to them? Or just irrelevant and time-wasting to them, like a layman asking uninformed questions of a physicist about quantum mechanics?
I find that kind of community vaguely appealing, maybe just on the level that I’m glad there are “different” people out there doing “different” things for (usually) sincere and non-commercial reasons, and I think I’d like more than I’d dislike about being around such people, being at least on the periphery of that kind of community.
On the merits of what they’re actually doing, I’m kind of an open-minded agnostic. They don’t strike me the way alternative communities based on New Age or religious or pseudoscience beliefs do, as a lot of that is simply factually wrong, and they believe what they believe because they are inferior logical, critical thinkers. I don’t think these artsy people are clearly “wrong” in that sense.
But whether they are expressing profound and important things in non-literal ways that I can only very partially appreciate (and would like to experience more and learn to appreciate more), or are mostly jacking off expressing useless things that are obscure because they’re nonsense rather than because they’re profound and that people pretend to “get” so they can feel artistically superior to the masses, I’m not sure. I suppose somewhere in between.
Yet another level is I actually found the interaction between the artist couple themselves strangely psychologically intriguing.
I never could fully put my finger on it, and I fear anything I say to describe my reaction to it won’t really capture my impression. But there’s something a little stilted about the way they behave when interviewed together. Maybe like neither of them is at all the type to be submissive to the other, to be a second banana, and they’ve gradually fallen into certain speech and behavior patterns of almost too conscious mutual respect.
Not that I sensed an underlying stress or hostility, but just that each is perpetually aware of what’s going on with the other, of “I have to remember not to run over x, because I respect x and I want x to have their say for the camera, while at the same time I’m not here just to support and comment on and follow the lead of x, but to have my say as well.”
But more self-conscious like that than natural. Like—purely speculating—if the man initially had a bit more of a sexist, controlling verbal style, and the woman felt that was stifling her, and over time, with or without their addressing it explicitly and maybe clashing over it, they settled into this kind of trained, self-conscious, verbal equality.
It’s weird, because almost always I’d be much more focused on the substance of what people are saying than the psychological interplay between them. And it’s not like the reason this is an exception is there’s something blatantly unusual about their interaction. (My guess is most viewers will have no clue what I’m talking about. Whatever I think I’m seeing and can’t really articulate is either very subtle or not there at all and I’m imagining it.) But for some odd reason, each time they were shown together, a part of me was focused on “What is it about these people and their relationship that I think I’m getting clues about but can’t quite make out?”
Anyway, by the end of Walk With Us I had been persuaded that, at least as far as obscure, non-literal, possibly pretentious, artsy stuff that I don’t fully “get,” I’d like to know more about—or better yet experience directly—the kind of “walks” or “participatory art” that these folks do.